SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY: Today’s Appearance on The NFL Network

Just FYI…..many of you know me for my work in the field of sports parenting. But long before I became involved in this area, I did my undergraduate and graduate work in psychology. And I specialized in sports psychology which, back when I was in college, was pretty much an unknown and uncharted territory. It’s only in the last couple of decades that sports psychology has become accepted by the world of professional and collegiate sports. Before then, the old joke that “anybody who needed to see a sports psychologist ought to have his head examined” was a typical — and unwanted — response from coaches and athletes.

In any event, like most athletes, I always found that the mental side of the game to be fascinating. Sure, you had to have the God-given physical skills to play at the collegiate or professional level, but the truth is, you reach a point where in order to succeed and win, one needs to become more consistent and perhaps a bit better prepared psychologically than one’s opponents. That’s where the mental approach begins to have major priority.

After being a head college baseball coach at Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, NY) for nine years where we had several nationally-ranked teams (NCAA, Div. II), I was then asked to serve as the roving sports psychology coach for the Cleveland Indians. I served with the big league and minor league teams of the Indians in the early 1990s, just as Cleveland was beginning to assert itself as an American League powerhouse. I worked with, and got to know well, a number of the young stars on those teams. And I was elated when Cleveland awarded me with an American League championship ring when the Tribe won the AL pennant in 1995.

These days, I still am called to consult with top athletes who are having some difficulties in terms of performing at a top level, and I’m called by athletes and their agents across a variety of sports. And sometimes, I’m even asked to comment when a kid is struggling. To that end, I thought you might be interested in seeing a short clip of yours truly on The NFL Network this AM discussing the performance issues of Tampa Bay’s highly-touted place-kicker Roberto Aguayo, and what he might want to try to correct his course of action.

See link below:

Rick Wolff on the NFL Network

 

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SPORTSMANSHIP: What To Do When Neither Team Tries to Win….

Game-Fixing and Youth Coaching Ethics

By Doug Abrams

Under the headline, “Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament,” Fox Soccer writer Alex Dowd described a U-18 girls game played on July 28 at the US Youth Soccer National Championships in Frisco, Texas. He reported that the two teams, the Ambassadors FC and the Carlsbad Elite, each needed only a tie to advance to the semifinals as the first- and second-place finishers in their group play bracket. The game ended in a scoreless tie, both teams advanced, and another team was eliminated.

With the help of game video posted online, Dowd described the game: “Essentially they’re just rolling the ball back and forth, not even pretending to compete. With the ignoble 0-0 result in the books, both teams collected the point needed to advance to the semifinals. That certainly looks like match fixing, through and through.”

Headlines and stories in other media outlets were similarly harsh on the two teams. USA TODAY (“Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game”) said that “it looked like neither side was trying to score or do much of anything.” GotSoccer (“Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships”) described the “somnolent 0-0 draw” and likened the contest to “a morality play in shin pads.”

In statements afterwards, the two head coaches denied match-fixing charges. According to TopDrawSoccer, the Ambassadors’ coach said that “Both teams were through pretty much, so there was nothing to play for. Earlier in the day, there had been 18 people collapsed due to the heat.” His Carlsbad counterpart said that “Playing a low pressure style was in our best interest looking ahead to the semi-final to help preserve our players physically for the next match, having already played two 90 minute games in the extreme heat.”

“Disrespectful to the Game”

US Youth Soccer issued a statement after its National Championship Series Committee met with both teams and conducted a thorough investigation of the evidence presented. The committee found insufficient evidence of collusion, but it determined that the teams were “disrespectful to the game, the competition and US Youth Soccer.” The disrespect had “compromised” the “integrity” of the championship series and its “ideals . . . of fair play and sportsmanship.”

The committee imposed fines and disciplinary action on both teams, and US Youth Soccer said that it would conduct further investigation to determine whether “the actions of the coaches were adverse to the best interests of soccer or US Youth Soccer.”

“Honors Won Without Fair Play”

This column is not about one sport or one national championship series, but about what can happen when temptation rears its head during tournaments in various youth sports at every age and experience level. The coaches may be paid, or they may be volunteers. The games may take place in community youth leagues, travel team play, or interscholastic leagues.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs arising from last month’s soccer game, reports periodically surface of youth coaches who seek tactical advantage from throwing games or manipulating scores in national, state, and local tournaments. These reports not only test youth coaching ethics; they can also threaten the future credibility of the coaches themselves, including coaches with otherwise unblemished records.

Many youth coaches doubtlessly weigh tactics during tournaments, which frequently feature multiple games in a few days, sometimes on only a few hours’ rest. To conserve stamina with the team comfortably ahead, for example, the coach may pace first-stringers or reward substitutes with extra playing time earned during the season.

The ethical compass points in a different direction, however, when the coach deliberately tries to lose a game or otherwise to jockey for advantageous placement in a later round. The line between reasonable pacing and deliberately trying to manipulate outcomes may sometimes be hazy, but coaches cross the line when the players themselves figure out that their leaders are scheming to pull a fast one.

US Youth Soccer is right that in national tournaments and local community play alike, the integrity of sports depends on competitors who try their best to win. Angling to lose or tie disrespects the game by denying players the fruits of athletic competition. The British Association of Coaches points the compass in the right direction: “Sport without fair play is not sport, and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”

‘We Were Embarrassed”

One element evidently absent from reports of the Ambassadors-Carlsbad game – but important to Rick Wolff’s listeners — is player disgust at coaching shenanigans. Reported efforts at match-fixing frequently draw immediate negative reaction from youngsters who know right from wrong. Even where the effort appears initially successful, the coach may lose in the long run because few people respect ethically challenged people for very long.

Players and parents may forgive a coach’s errors of strategy, or the coach’s lack of knowledge about the finer points of the game. But players or parents may find it difficult to forgive sharp practice that soils the values that drive sports and leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. Youth coaching depends on credibility, and credibility depends on more than X’s, O’s, and scoreboards.

A few years ago, for example, respect and credibility evaporated quickly in an early round of the Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) High School Hockey League’s A-Division playoffs.  The Westwood High School Warriors led College Jeanne Sauve, 3-2, late in the third period, when Westwood’s coaches schemed to lose the game by pulling their goalie to let the opponents score. The coaches knew that by losing, the Warriors would draw an easier opponent in the upcoming semifinal round and avoid a faceoff against the league’s regular-season champion. With their net empty, the Warriors yielded the tying and winning goals and lost, 4-3.

The Winnipeg Sun reported that many Warriors players left the ice “visibly distraught” because they knew that their coaches had deliberately thrown the game. “It was brutal,” a Warriors forward told the Sun.  “We were embarrassed, and we’re sad we had to put up with it.” I was a youth hockey coach for many years, and I would never have wanted any of my players to feel that way about me.

20/20 Hindsight

Reputation earned over time is the youth coach’s greatest asset. Benjamin Franklin described the impact of even one ethical lapse: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Coaches who cut ethical corners seeking to lose or to manipulate outcomes may find it difficult, if not impossible, to recover their reputations, even if their schools or associations permit them to return to return to the sidelines. The Internet makes the difficulty or impossibility even greater today than ever before. The Ambassadors and Carlsbad coaches attracted national media attention because the game took place during a prominent national championship series. But even in a local weekend or holiday tournament, complaints about a named coach’s ethical lapse may find their way into the local press or blog postings that describe the game itself or parental or player misgivings.

The stain can be permanent, awaiting simple Internet word searches for the coach’s name. Permanence can be a serious consequence for a coach who wishes future coaching assignments or who seeks the respect from youngsters on future teams. Or for a coach whose reputation in the community might be sullied by tanking a game played by children and adolescents.

The prospect of permanently tattered respect and reputation is too great a price to pay for today’s gamble at a tainted outcome.

 

Sources:  Alex Dowd, Two Youth Teams Apparently Fixed a Match At a Tournament, http://www.foxnews.com/sports/2016/07/29/two-youth-teams-apparently-fixed-match-at-tournament.html (July 29, 2016); Charles Curtis, Two Youth Teams Accused of Deliberately Tanking After Playing Terrible Soccer Game, USA TODAY, http://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/07/us-youth-soccer-national-championship-tanking-accusations (July 30, 2016); Peter Nolan, Controversy Dogs U18 Girls Semifinals at US Youth Soccer National Championships, http://blogs.gotsoccer.com/?p=17822  (July 30, 2016); Will Parchman, Watch Two Teams Sit On a Match to Advance in a Youth Tournament, http://www.topdrawersoccer.com/the91stminute/2016/07/watch-two-teams-siton-a-match-to-advance-in-a-youth-tournament/ (July 29, 2016); US Youth Soccer Statement on Under-18 Girls Ambassadors vs. Carlsbad Game, http://www.usyouthsoccer.org/us_youth_soccer_statement_on_under-18_girls_ambassadors_vs_carlsbad_game/  (July 30, 2016); Ken Wiebe, Swift Hockey Justice, Winnipeg Sun, Mar. 5, 2011, p. S3.

 

 

ATHLETIC DIRECTORS: When HS Coaches are Fired….

A few weeks ago, the long-time varsity boys basketball coach at Horace Greeley HS in Chappaqua, NY was fired. He’d been the head coach there for 24 years. That’s a long time. And for many of his players, he was beloved.

But the AD at Greeley decided to make a change. And of course, because it’s standard school and state policy pretty much everywhere not to offer comments about why a coaching change was made, there was no official reason or explanation for the coach’s dismissal.  “Just a change in direction” is the usual explanation.

Then about a week or so later, four long-time varsity coaches at Scarsdale HS (Scarsdale, NY) were also informed that their services were no longer needed. One of the coaches, faced with the reality of being let go, decided to resign instead.

Again, lots of outcry from the Scarsdale sports community about the abrupt dismissal: “How could this happen? Our kids LOVED playing for these people? How could the AD make such a radical move and not give any reason?”

IS THERE A BETTER WAY?

And again, as expected, no reasons were given except the standard “this is a personnel issue, and we’re not allowed to discuss it.”

The dismissal of long-time coaches is always charged with emotion. First, it’s a tough decision for the AD who has to make a case to the school board behind closed door to fire the coach. Then, once given the bad news, it’s always difficult for the coach to face the reality that his or her coaching tenure is over at that school. And of course, it’s also very, very tough on the HS athletes as this suddenly changes the landscape in their careers.

There are a lot of unknowns here for the kids:  Who will be the new coach? How will the new coach run things? Most importantly, will the new coach see that I’m talented and good? And of course, the kids’ parents have the same concerns.

But let’s get back to the actual dismissal of the coach. It’s one thing, of course, if the coach didn’t have much of a successful win-loss record. At the varsity level, one of the top priorities is to win. No question. But does priority tallow the coach to play ONLY the team’s top players all the time, and not give other kids’ on the team any playing time?

And what about the coach’s ability to communicate? Is he “old school” and gruff with the kids with his feedback? If a kid comes to him and asks how he or she can get more playing time, does the coach simply tell them straight out: “Look, you’re too slow…or you’re too small….or you’re not as good as other kids on the team” or does the coach sugar coat their response?

My years of experience suggests to me that, in many cases, these two issues are often at the heart of these coaching changes: a lack of playing time for all kids, and the coach doesn’t communicate well. But the purpose of this column is to first focus on what’s the right way to announce to the community that a coach isn’t being re-hired.

Remember, HS coaches do not just have tenure like teachers. They are hired on a year-to-year basis, and they all know that. But if a coach has been on staff for a number of years, it becomes apparent that he or she has become a coaching fixture in that school. That’s one reason why it’s so jarring when it’s decided that they have been let go.

My question is….is there a better way to make these kinds of sudden coaching changes? Does the AD have any kind of responsibility to say more to the general community  than “we just felt the program needed to go in a different direction?”

Or is that indeed enough?

Legal concerns aside, can the AD say in his explanation that each year, I sit down with the coach and give him or her an objective performance appraisal on what they need to improve….and unfortunately, in this case, the coach really didn’t make any significant progress.

Can they at least say that? Do you know whether your school’s AD even does annual performance reviews with his staff of varsity coaches? And if they do, can parents or athletes see that standard performance review sheet that is filled out? That, to me, would be interesting to see because it would give a real sense of what the AD’s top priorities for the school’s coaches.

One of the many callers this AM suggested that the coach should have the right to speak freely about why he or she was terminated. That is, the school can’t or won’t say anything, but the coach can. The same caller – Tom from North Arlington, NJ – also suggested that perhaps coaches should be allowed to get tenure — perhaps after being on staff for 5 or 7 years. And then, maybe that tenure is re-evaluated again every 5 years after that.

Another caller pointed out that in some cases, coaches have protested their dismissal, and have occasionally won their appeal to the school board. But it’s admitted that is very uncommon.

LIFE GOES ON…

The truth is, coaching changes come and go. It’s still very much a privilege to serve as a coach; it’s not a right. Even with just a few thousand dollars in salary, being a coach is a very special appointment. All that being said, there are lots of good coaches, but sadly, there are also weak ones. It’s the AD’s job to weed out the poor ones, and sometimes, even though some of the kids on the team (and their parents) truly cherish the coach, there are many other kids on the team who feel just the opposite.

It’s up to the AD, ultimately, to make the call.

 

 

SPORTS PARENTING TIPS: Coaching Kids is a Serious Responsibility

The response to Doug Abram’s column last week regarding “coaches who apologize” generated a remarkable number of downloads and hits, and that interest continued this AM on my radio show.

The general consensus was that — especially with younger athletes (10 and under) — who look up to coaches as trustworthy adults and solid role models, and who  don’t understand yet that the real world may be unfair, that coaches who make promises to their players (such as equal playing time in games) need to step up and apologize to those kids if such promises aren’t carried through.

The callers this AM quickly made it clear that as kids reach HS age, the expectation that one’s coach would apologize for such oversights not only don’t happen, but that the kids really don’t expect such apologies. By the time the youngster is 15 or 16, they have tasted enough of the real world to understand that not all promises come true. It was agreed that this isn’t fair, but again, the sense of the world being an unfair place becomes more commonplace with student-athletes.

Doug’s overall point – that coaches are indeed human and sometimes make errors in judgment just like all of us (including parents) — needs to be kept in perspective. Clearly certain behaviors and actions by coaches are not excusable in any way (e.g. bullying, or allowing bullying, or any kind of harassment, etc). But making mistakes in the heat of game competition can and probably should be forgiven, and kids and their parents need to understand that.

BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU PROMISE

That being said, if a coach made a promise to a player, and the coach didn’t follow through, then it’s incumbent on that coach to seek out the player after the game, and even their parents if necessary, to privately apologize for the coach’s oversight and mistake. Just to assume that the player and his parents have forgotten about the unfulfilled promise is a real mistake unto itself. It will only fester and make the relationship between the player and the coach extremely strained.

The takeaway of this conversation is this: As Doug writes: “coaching other people’s kids is serious business” and that reality is at the basis of this sports parenting column, and indeed, pretty much all sports parenting concerns. And if you’re going to take on the responsibility of coaching, you have to keep this principle as your first and most important fundamental.

The same way that parents trust their children to educators in school, you as a coach, have to develop the same kind of care and sensitivity to those kids when they play sports. To that end, do not make promises that you can’t keep, and always be aware of your words as to what kind of impact they will have. Above all, if you do make a mistake, or screw up, have the courage of character to step up and do the right thing.

If you want your athletes to do the right thing, then you have to do the right thing too.

 

 

COACHING TIPS: When Coaches Make Mistakes…

 When Coaches Apologize

By Doug Abrams

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine was the volunteer head coach of a 9-10-year-old youth basketball team in a nearby recreation league. A mutual friend had introduced us months earlier, and I grew impressed with the coach’s values about sportsmanship, equal playing time, and similar matters central to a coach’s healthy relationship with youth leaguers. He had paid attention to nationally prominent youth sports advocates who “get it,” so I knew that his kids were in for an enriching season, win or lose.

In the preseason parents meeting, the coach had promised the families that their sons and daughters would receive equal playing time. He also explained why bench warming was incompatible with an elementary schooler’s need to feel like a part of the team.

By that time, the coach had already been on the sidelines for three years, long enough to begin honing leadership qualities but still early in the learning curve. Some of the team’s parents were also acquaintances of mine, and they gave him high marks for keeping his promises. He was already one of the good ones.

Then temptation reared its head one morning. The coach phoned me a few hours later to say that (as he put it) “I really blew it.” With the score close nearing the half, he played a short bench for the rest of the game. Six or seven team members got all the playing time until the final buzzer, and their teammates warmed the bench.

“I just got caught up in the game,” he explained. “I did something that I promised I would never do.” He knew that many of the parents were upset.

Temptation

Temptation to cut corners for the sake of the scoreboard can prove a powerful force in youth sports coaching. Expressing solid values is easy in a preseason parents meeting, or from the security of the computer keyboard, because the words are cost-free. (Remember, “talk is cheap.”)

Maintaining solid values can be a lot tougher in the heat of a close game, whatever the kids’ age. I know that translating words into deeds takes fortitude because I have been behind youth hockey benches in plenty of close games. Coaches can easily get “that feeling” once W’s or L’s begin staring them in the face.

Chronic bench warming is bad enough, but a broken promise about equal playing time made matters worse for my friend. Then he did the right thing. He gathered the parents together before the next weekly practice, owned up to his mistake, and said that it would not happen again. The parents accepted the apology, and the team finished the season without further upset.

The Power of Apology

Mistakes happen. This story introduces this week’s column about the “power of apology.” The core proposition is that coaches, like parents, sometimes make mistakes in their relationships with children. Coaches are not perfect. When parents demand perfection, parents expect more from the coach than they expect from themselves.

At one time or another, coaches do or say something that they wish they could take back, but coaches (like parents and even players) may not get chances for do-overs. Coaches may try to do the right thing, but usually the best they can do is try to keep mistakes to the bare minimum.

Some mistakes remain serious. Fortunately most coaching mistakes do not inflict lasting emotional or physical hurt. Bench warming, for example, may prove embarrassing but can be remedied by coaches who realize they have come up short.

The calculus is different, however, when the coach refuses or fails to correct a pattern of misconduct. Or, for example, when the coach’s obviously dangerous drill seriously injures a player. Or when the coach singles out one player for a tongue lashing in front of the team. Depending on the coach’s track record, an apology may not satisfy disgruntled parents, or a board of directors who consider the coach’s suspension or dismissal. Some mistakes are so serious that, as the saying goes, the coach “cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Sometimes an apology signals a “teaching opportunity.” My friend’s apology worked because his lapse – playing a short bench for most of the game — was isolated, inflicted no lasting hurt, and resulted from a single spur-of the-moment decision born of bad judgment.

Coaches and teachers are familiar with “teaching opportunities,” which enable them to instruct players or students with positive lessons from a negative event. Sometimes the learners include the adults themselves. Whether in the classroom or the playing field, the best coaches and teachers never stop learning. A lesson’s price may be an apology to one or more parents, or sometimes even to all the parents. I think everyone learned something worthwhile from that youth basketball game a few years ago.

Early communication is key. Coaching mistakes are foreseeable, and coaches and parents need to foresee them. Early in the preseason parents meeting, I would candidly tell our team’s parents to expect some coaching mistakes during the season, and not only ones stemming from strategies or tactics. Coaching other people’s impressionable children is serious business, so I promised to make the most serious effort to avoid mistakes.

Tongue in cheek, I would close this early part of the meeting by inviting advice from any parents willing to acknowledge that they had never regretted something they had said to their child or some decision they had made. Perhaps, I said, these parents could share the secrets of their perfection. I never had any takers.

SPORTS PARENTING: Is It Okay for Our Young Athletes to Fail in Sports?

As many of you know, I was on vacation last week. That break gave me some time to catch up on a lot of email and articles, and during my time off, one parenting column in particular – written by a parenting reporter from CNN, Kelly Wallace —  caught my eye.

The column’s headline was: Why Is it So Hard to Let Our Kids Fail?

Wallace was writing about all different aspects of kids growing up and competing in school, theatre, music, and so on. And competing in sports was most definitely in the mix as well.

She was asking why do so many of us – sports parents included – simply don’t allow our kids to go out, try, compete, and if they fail, well, they’ll simply have to learn and cope with the sometimes harsh realities of life. In many ways, it’s what many of us sports parents went through and experienced when we were growing up.

Her overriding point, of course, is that kids learning what they are NOT good at is just as important as finding out what they DO have talent for, and what activities they enjoy. Those experiences, as one of my WFAN Radio listeners today called: “Those activities that put a smile on your child’s face.”

But as we all know, the problem is that parents today tend to rush in and do whatever they can to insure that their little one DOES succeed in their athletic pursuits, regardless of what kind of implications that kind of parental interference may have.

This is, of course, the essence and core of the meddling sports parent. Perhaps that’s where the problem begins with today’s Mom and Dads, all of whom want their sons and daughters to play sports well and to excel. But when Mom and Dad sense that their kid is struggling, or shows signs of just being average, then Mom and Dad will start to intervene any way they can to make sure their kid improves.

The CNN column by Kelly Wallace suggests that parents take a different approach – that it’s okay if your kid is struggling or not doing well. In effect, that it’s part of the natural process of growing up for a kid to come to grips with the fact that he or she is not going to be a great athlete – and that’s okay. Or if they want to develop their mastery of athletic skills, then it’s up to the youngster – not the parent – to do what it takes to get better.

WHOSE DREAM IS IT?

After all, every Mom and Dad wants their youngster to excel in life, whether it be sports, academics, or in other endeavors. That’s what parents dream about, and hope for. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But when the reality quietly sinks in that my child is not going to be a star athlete, that’s where Moms and Dads often find themselves becoming over-involved. They seem to have the sense that if my kid is underachieving, I need to get them a special skills coach, or a private coach, or get them on a better travel team, then they’ll begin to live up to expectations. In short, more often than not in our competitive youth sports world, this is the typical knee-jerk reaction from the parents.

But are we doing our children a disservice by jumping in and doing these kinds of things? Would they be better off if we simply left them alone, and if they don’t get better in a sport, well, that’s okay. Their world — nor ours — won’t come to an end.

Or, if the kids do want to get better, they will find their own pathway to improve their skills. After all, isn’t that what we did growing up, back in the day before parents were so involved in kids’ sports?

As Kelly Wallace writes:  There is no question that one of the most difficult things about being a parent is letting our children stumble, fail, make mistakes. From her perspective, making mistakes and failing is all part of maturing as kids.

But does that approach work with kids and sports? That is, at some point, especially at the youth level where kids are first learning the basic skills of a sport, they DO need to be coached and taught. I do feel that any youngster just starting out in sports needs the benefit of some solid coaching on the basics, everything from the rules of the game to learning how to develop individual skills that will help their appreciation of the sport.

Yet to me, the key difference is that it’s always much, much better if the youngster comes to the coach or to you, their parent, and asks to help them with their soccer dribbling, or fielding in baseball, or in shooting a basketball. If they have the inherent drive and motivation to come to you to improve their game, then it’s fine for you to help out. Why? Because it’s the CHILD who is showing the desire to get better – NOT the PARENT dictating to the child. And to me, that’s a big difference.

Several of the callers brought up this theme this morning on the radio show, and I couldn’t agree with them more. Too many parents take the attitude with their youngster with: “Hey, don’t you want to get better in sports? Don’t you want to be as good as your friends?” As you might imagine, that kind of negative motivation does not work, and yet too many parents think it’s an appropriate kind of statement.

Bottom line? Yes, especially when kids are just starting out in sports (up to age 9), it’s perfectly fine to let them explore all sorts of sports, and see which of them appeal to them. And if they enjoy a sport or two, chances are they will want to come back to it, over and over again, and at some point, will come to you for some coaching tips.

That’s the best solution. Because the initiative is coming from your child – not from you the parent.

 

 

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: What’s the Key Ingredient for Young Athletes Today?

 Advice From the Pros to Parents and Coaches

By Doug Abrams

In the Sun Herald late last month, writer Patrick Ochs reported on a talk that former all-star outfielder Darryl Strawberry delivered in Biloxi, Mississippi. Reflecting on his 17 seasons in Major League Baseball, Strawberry spoke about youth league parents who stunt their players’ development by sapping their enthusiasm for the game.

“We need to get back to letting kids have fun and enjoy themselves,” said Strawberry. “Parents need to chill out. Don’t go to games yelling. Let them play.” The eight-time all star does not like what he sees. “Parents today push their kids and before you know it they’re 18, 19 and don’t want to play anymore.”

His solution? “We just have to get back to understanding that the game is fun. . . . It’s fun. Fun. Remember, fun.”

Bjorn Borg

Strawberry is the latest former professional star to talk about fun to youth league parents and coaches. Earlier last month, CNN’s Sophie Eastaugh wrote about an interview that former tennis great Bjorn Borg gave to Open Court’s Pat Cash. “When we’re traveling around Sweden we see all these crazy parents, I mean it’s unbelievable,” said Borg. “[Y]ou can see sometimes the kids don’t want to play. It’s like the parents push them to do something they don’t want to do.”

Borg’s bottom line about youth tennis? “At this age, it has to be fun.”

John Smoltz

In his 2015 Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, pitcher John Smoltz also stressed fun as an emotional foundation of youth sports. At the same time, he warned about physical excesses, including premature specialization in one sport and what he called the “epidemic” of Tommy John surgeries stemming from overuse of youthful pitching arms.

“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at fourteen and fifteen years old. That you have time, that baseball’s not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports,” said the perennial major league all-star who played three sports each year in his youth.

Since his induction in Cooperstown, Smoltz has also emerged as a leading opponent of using radar guns to rate youth league pitchers. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports his advice that by encouraging youngsters to throw as hard as they can too often, this increasingly popular technology can actually damage their arms and their future prospects.

Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr

Two hockey legends also stress fun and decry premature specialization. Wayne Gretzky was a multi-sport athlete in his youth, and in the Globe and Mail he said that he encouraged his five children to have fun with various sports. “Just go out and play,” he told them. “Just enjoy it. . . . Learn what it’s like to be around your teammates – the highs of winning and the lows of losing.”

“The love and passion I had for the game was my key,” says Bobby Orr, who remains thankful that he “never had that taken out of me by my parents or a silly coach.” “I have stacks of clippings that tell of children being berated by an angry parent, humiliated by a frustrated coach,” he told the Boston Herald. “We’re talking about serious hurts, damaging blows, very personal wounds, all knowingly inflicted by adults who ought to know better.”

Orr told the Toronto Star that when parents and coaches stray, the problem “usually takes care of itself. The player will eventually quit hockey; it’s as simple and sad as that.”

Striking a Common Chord

This accumulated wisdom from these and other pros about emotional and physical excesses in youth sports should resonate with parents and coaches. The pros know what they are talking about.

After moving up from rung to rung, the pros have reached the pinnacle of their games and they are looking down from the top. They know what it takes, and they know what wise parenting and wise coaching can mean to the minuscule few youth leaguers who make it big, but even more important to the multitude who do not. These elite athletes speak from the heart because usually they are not talking only about their own children. They are talking about what is best for the millions of American kids who play sports every year.

Virtually all of these athletes strike the same refrain – make the game fun, maintain perspective, don’t burn out the kids, don’t physically overtax their young bodies. If more parents and coaches took this advice, perhaps the percentages of youth leaguers who quit playing by about the age of 13 would fall below the usual range of about 70%.

Listening to star professional athletes talk about nurturing young athletes must resemble listening, say, to a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry talk about what makes high school chemistry classes work. The Laureate may say the same things that the local high school chemistry teacher says. Parents may think that they know better than the teacher, but it is hard for parents to close their ears to someone whose resume includes a Nobel Prize.

Parents and coaches similarly may think that they know better than the array of youth sports reform voices who have been sounding the alarm for the past several years. But it is quite another thing for the adults to close their ears to someone whose resume includes major league stardom and perhaps a Hall of Fame nod.

More youth leaguers would be much better off if more parents and coaches would listen to the wisdom that the pros speak in unison.

 

Sources: Patrick Ochs, Darryl Strawberry Has the Best Advice For Baseball Parents, Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald, June 28, 2016; Sophie Eastaugh, Bjorn Borg Shocked By “Crazy Tennis Parents”, CNN, June 16, 2016; John Smoltz, Hall of Fame Induction Speech, http://genius.com/John-smoltz-hall-of-fame-induction-speech-annotated (July 26, 2015); Mike Luck, Smoltz: Radar Guns Not Good For Youth Sports, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jan. 12, 2016; Eric Duhatschek, The Great One’s Message to Parents: Let Your Kids Have Fun, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 26, 2008, p. A3; Joe Fitzgerald, Adult Egos Stick It to Youth Sports, Boston Herald, Mar. 14, 2012, p. 10; Bobby Orr, Orr: My Story (2013); Stephen Whyno, Hockey According to Bobby Orr, The Canadian Press, Oct. 16, 2013, p. S3; Paul Irish, Orr’s Hockey Message? Have Fun: NHL Legend Says Parental Pressure Can Make Kids Quit, Toronto Star, Oct. 15, 2012, E5.

ABUSIVE COACHES: The Ongoing Issue of Entitlement with Volunteer Coaches

Entitlement is another one of those relatively new concepts in youth sports that really didn’t exist when most of today’s sports parents were growing up. Like the concept of travel teams, or burnout, or repetitive use injuries, coaching entitlement is one of those  issues that has sprung up like an annoying weed in youth sports, and it has unfortunately spread all over the country.

Let me first define what entitlement is. As you might imagine, it comes directly from those parents who are over-involved in their kid’s sports, either as a volunteer coach, or in many cases, as a travel team coach.

The problem is especially evident when a parent feels that since he or she is volunteering their team to work with kids, then there should be sometime “built-in” special side benefits to being a volunteer.

What are the tell-tale signs of Entitlement?

The general philosophy goes something like this:

“If I’m serving as the head coach of this team, and giving of my time and energy without any compensation, then certainly I should be allowed to give my youngster a little break here or there…”

Translation: Since I’m the head coach, my kid is entitled to more playing time than the other kids, or my kid is allowed to play the position he or she wants, or my kid is going to be a team captain, or have their choice of what uniform number they want, or my kid is going to be on the All-Star team.

This is the essence of Entitlement in youth sports. Too many Coaches/Parents feel that, somehow, they – or their kids – are entitled to be treated a little more fairly than the other kids.

Of course, this is NOT the way it’s supposed to be.

It’s as though Parents who volunteer are not aware of the definition of the word Volunteer: which means to give of one’s time FREELY with no expectation of compensation or personal benefit.

But somehow, that simple and clear definition of volunteer coach has been lost in recent years.

Look – if you volunteer, and  you’re giving of your time as a coach, or an assistant coach, you MUST treat all the children in the same way. You CAN NOT show favoritism or nepotism to your own kid. And you certainly can’t give special perks to your son or daughter – just because they are your son or daughter!

Is this pattern now to expected?

The callers on the show this AM all felt that not only is coaching entitlement a continuing issue, but that in many towns, it’s now become a part of life. That is, if your kid plays on a local youth or travel team, all the other parts are now conditioned to assume that the coach is going to play his or her kid more. That this is part of the accepted way of having your kid play for another Mom or Dad.

That trend, of course, is most disturbing. One caller, a physician in his 50s, said that he still recalled with great bitterness when he was told, as a 17-year-old baseball player, by a summer league coach that the coach was going to cut him simply so he could make room for his own son on the team.

The doctor spoke with great emotion as to how hurt he felt by this coaching entitlement. After 30 years, it still bothered him as being cruel and unfair.

Too often youth coaches today forget that the words they use, and the actions they implement, have a very strong, life-long impact on kids. And especially for youngsters just starting out in sports, which is supposed to be all about equality and success based upon meritocracy, this kind of favoritism played by youth coaches is just inexcusable.

Bottom line? If you’re helping out as a coach and your kid is on the team, be doubly sure that no one of the other parents can ever accuse you of giving favors to your own child. You do that just once, and you will run the risk of alienating all of those other parents and their kids.

TRENDS IN SPORTS: Inside the Mysterious World of Baseball Scouting

There was a time in which baseball scouts and associate scouts (aka “bird dogs”) were found everywhere at amateur games. High school games, college, summer leagues, Babe Ruth games, you name it.

If a young man had a big game at the plate or on the mound, chances were good that somebody representing a major league team was there to see it. And then that scout would make a point to come back and watch that player, again and again. Not only to see if that one day’s performance was just a fluke, but whether the kid could perform consistently well. In other words, the scout wanted to see if the youngster were a real prospect – not just a suspect.

But then the scouting landscape changed. Billy Beane become the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Being a small market team with limited financial resources, Beane searched for another way to find prospects and major league players and bring them to Oakland. Along the way, he discovered the lure of Sabrmetrics and analytics, and before too long, Beane had pretty much scrapped the old method of relying upon scouts in the field and instead invented “laptop” scouting in which high school and college ballplayers were “scouted” by their statistical performances.

If you have ever read the book MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis or seen the movie by the same name, this new approach is dramatically illustrated. Oakland pretty much gave up on most of its scouts, and instead scouted players electronically. And Oakland did, to its credit, have some success.

DOES MONEYBALL REALLY WORK?

But as Al Goldis, the legendary baseball scout who was inducted into the Scout’s Hall of Fame a few years ago, points out: “Fans forget that when the Oakland A’s had success during Beane’s tenure, it was because they had three outstanding starting pitchers on their staff. That simple reality was overlooked by the movie, and many people don’t realize how good Oakland’s starting pitching was.”

Good point. And in addition, since those days, Oakland has never really become a major contender since MONEYBALL days. Critics say it’s because other teams have embraced analytics and caught up with Oakland. But as an article in Baseball America pointed out a few years ago, for several years after Beane instituted laptop scouting, the A’s didn’t produce many major league players. In other words, the Moneyball approach to finding players didn’t work well.

This was just one of the inside revelations that Al Goldis presented on the show this morning (you can hear the podcast simply by going to WFAN.com and find the link to Podcasts.)

Al also talked about how important it is for young pitchers to not only have the right mechanics in order to prevent serious arm injury, but also to have a sense of rhythm. That is, pitchers need to be aware of how they feel when performing, and that they need to stay within their personal rhythm. He also strongly advocated that pitchers take at least four months off each year so that their arms can rest and fully heal – even if they are not injured. This is done to prevent injury to young arms.

MARKETING YOURSELF

Goldis made it clear that scouts get their leads on possible prospects from high school coaches, umpires who work the games, and generally word of mouth. He was convinced that if a kid can play and has potential, somebody will notice and word will eventually get to a bird dog or a scout.

That being said, he made it clear that it’s a two-way street. Ballplayers just can’t sit back and wait for scouts to come to them. Young and hungry ballplayers should go to major league websites and see when tryout camps are being held in their area. Or, if the player is out of college, then they should contact some local independent teams, who are always looking for players. Independent professional teams often send its players to contracts with teams that are affiliated with major league teams.

I have known Al Goldis for more than 40 years, and no one is better versed in the art and science of scouting than he is. I could spend hours talking baseball with him. To that end, if you have a youngster who aspires to play pro baseball, let me suggest you pick up a copy of Al’s book, HOW TO MAKE PRO SCOUTS NOTICE YOU, which is considered by many to be the leading guide on the topic. You can buy it either in paperback or as an ebook on Amazon.

 

SPORTS PARENTING TRENDS: Are Kids Born with Grit…Or Do They Learn it?

There’s a major New York Times best-selling book that was published about two months ago, and it has the simple title of GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

The author is Dr. Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology  at the Univ of Penn who has studied this trait – grit — for several years.

Her book’s basic thesis –which clearly has great application in the world of sports, competition, and winning in both athletics and in life – is that those individuals who succeed in sports and in the real world have developed, or are blessed with, a sense of grit….and grit is all about Passion and Perseverance to make your goals come true.

To me, grit is defined as having that inner desire or drive to work ever harder at achieving one’s goals; to put more effort into succeeding than perhaps one’s peers, even if that means overcoming major adversity.

Now, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that we all want our kids to have a sense of grit in their lives, especially if they are aspiring athletes, or want to do well in school, or to succeed when it comes to their careers.

But I worry that the overall takeaway from the bestseller GRIT might be somewhat misleading. That is, that if your youngster is told that he or she needs to develop this sense of overachieving drive, then he or she can – and will — succeed in sports.

QUOTING DAVID DENBY OF THE NEW YORKER

I have touched on this point before. While developing a sense of drive, or grit, is certainly a positive element in one’s youth, I become concerned if a parent or a child buys into it to the point where:

  1. it becomes the overwhelming force in their child’s athletic development, and
  2.  they truly believe that by simply working harder at their sport, they will go on to earn a college scholarship and play pro ball.

In short, it just doesn’t happen that way in the real world. And that’s why grit and its role needed to be clarified for sports parents and youth coaches.

Ironically, I was reading a critique of GRIT a few days ago by David Denby of the New Yorker, and he picked up on this troubling takeaway as well. Denby, too, doesn’t buy into this pop psychology premise that if your child show some athletic promise — and if he or she works their tail off — then they ultimately prevail in sports.

Denby notes a letter to the editor to the New York Times Book Review which had given GRIT a positive review. I quote from Denby’s thoughtful column:

And what if a child has only moderate talent for her particular passion?

That’s the ultimate question every sports parent has to keep in mind. Mike Egan, a former member of the Marine Corps, wrote a letter to the Times Book Review in response to a positive review of Duckworth’s book. “Anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work,” Egan wrote, “ought to be jailed for child abuse.”

Well, that’s perhaps a little extreme, to be sure. But it’s an important point: That just having grit, and a desire to overcome adversity, and even to commit 10,000 hours to practice, is just not enough.

What an athlete needs beyond grit is actual, God-given athletic talent. Without that key ingredient, grit and hard work will only take your athlete so far.

And the vast majority of the callers on my WFAN radio this show this morning also agreed that the gift of grit, like pure athletic talent, is something a child is born with in their DNA. Like being born to grow to a certain size, or having a certain eye color, grit is part of that inherited package. True, as a parent, you need to explain to your child the importance of grit and the drive to succeed. But as so many parents have asked me over the years, “My kid has great natural ability…but doesn’t seem to have the inherent drive to push himself. What can I do?”

In my experience, there’s not much you can do. Great talent without an innate drive will only get your athlete so far.

LIVING UP TO ONE’S POTENTIAL

What’s my take? Yes, you let your athlete know that in order to master and perfect skills, they need to practice, practice, and practice….BUT that the overall goal is not necessarily to play pro ball, or to play college ball, but to play to the best of their God-given abilities.

That’s a big, big difference.

In other words, their God-given abilities may take them only as far as the local HS varsity….or a club team or intramural team in college….And that’s fine.

And it’s up to you, as their parent, to truly accept that….to be supportive and proud….and not to be disappointed.